When people look for fruit trees for a small garden, they think of the standard grocery store fruit: Gala apples, Italian Prune plums, freestone Peaches, and a few other familiar fruit. But if you are planting apple trees please consider adding a crabapple to your garden plans. Here are five reasons why a crabapple should be in your garden plans.
By Chris Dalziel, contributing writer
1. Crabapples are decorative
My crabapple trees are the first trees to blossom in my garden. They blossom longer than any of my other fruit trees. This gives me a full 3 to 4 weeks of flowering, at a time when the rest of my garden is just beginning to wake up.
In late summer the red and yellow blushed fruit hangs in bundles from the branches, stunning against the August greenness of the rest of the garden.
The leaves hang on till the first killing frost and then change color quickly for a stunning display of gold and yellow.
2. Crabapples are early bee food
In spring my crabapple trees are abuzz with bumblebees and mason bees. The blossoms of crabapples are a banquet for both native pollinators and honey bees. Since the flowering season for crabapples is earlier and longer, it gives those stressed pollinators a reliable food source before berries and other fruit start to leaf out. [And be sure to consider these 10 perennials to attract bees.]
3. Crabapples pollinate other apple varieties
Apple trees require a pollinator of another compatible apple variety to set fruit. Crabapple pollen will pollinate most apple trees provided that they blossom at the same time. Crabapples are so effective at pollinating other apple varieties that old time orchardists would take branches of crabapples in bloom and put them in a bucket of water in the middle of their apple orchards. The bees would visit the crabapple blossoms and then visit the apple blossoms as they opened on the apple trees, improving the fruit set.
When you are planting apple trees in a new garden, plant a crabapple within 50 feet of your other apple trees to ensure good pollination.
4. Crabapples don’t take up much space
Crabapples can be huge, sprawling trees, or small garden trees depending on the rootstock chosen. When you are considering a crabapple for your small garden, look for one grafted onto dwarf rootstock. Crabapples on dwarf rootstock don’t take up much space. Although these can still grow up to 12 feet tall, they can be easily managed in a small garden, with judicious pruning.
5. Crabapples are edible and dependable
In commercial production of apples the crabapple is used merely as a pollinator. In fact most crabapple trees are bred only for their blossoms. (You may have noticed that it’s hard to find them at your local farmer’s market.) The difference between an ornamental and an edible crabapple is the size of the fruit. Edible varieties have fruit that are about 2 inches in diameter, whereas ornamentals have tiny fruit or no fruit at all. Plant a crabapple variety with medium to large fruit to get the most from your crabapple tree.
Which variety should you plant?
My favorite for a small garden is the Dolgo Crabapple. It is one of the earliest crabapples to blossom in the spring. The blossom buds are deep pink and open to large, showy white flowers. The fruit is medium size — about two inches — with good flavor and a strong red color that is visible in the jelly, the pectin, or the canned fruit. As an early bloomer, it pollinates the early-fruiting, heritage apple trees that I have in my mountain garden. I grow it because it is hardy to zone 3 and will produce fruit in my shorter growing season. It has good disease resistance to fire blight, scab, cedar rust, and mildew.
You can plant crabapple trees whenever your soil can be worked. Container grown trees, or those sold as “balled and burlapped” can be planted spring, summer, or fall. Bare root trees need to be planted in the early spring. [Click for more on planting bare root fruit trees.]
Crabapples are traditionally made into crabapple jelly, spiced crabapple preserves, and pectin for jam. You don’t need added pectin when you make jams or jellies with crabapples. They have plenty of natural pectin all on their own.
Here are a few recipes to help you get started fully utilizing the harvest.
- Spiced crabapples and honey cinnamon crabapples from Common Sense Homesteading
- Pie filling from Preparedness Mama
Jams and jellies
- Crabapple jelly from Learning and Yearning
- Crabapple butter from The 104 Homestead
- Hot pepper jelly (and cowboy candy fruit leather from the same batch) from Joybilee Farm
- Crabapple Fruit Leather from Joybilee Farm
About Chris Dalziel
Chris is the author of the forthcoming book, The Beeswax Workshop: How to Make Your Own Natural Candles, Cosmetics, Cleaners, Soaps, Healing Balms, and More. She is a teacher, author, gardener, and community herbalist with 30+ years of growing herbs and formulating herbal remedies, skin care products, soaps, and candles. She teaches workshops and writes extensively about gardening, crafts, and medicinal herbs on her blog at JoybileeFarm.com. Chris’s other titles include The Beginner’s Book of Essential Oils: Learning to Use Your First 10 Essential Oils with Confidence and Homegrown Healing, From Seed to Apothecary.
Chris lives with her husband Robin in the mountains of British Columbia on a 140 acre ranch, with sheep, dairy goats, llamas, and a few retired chickens. They have 3 adult children and 3 granddaughters. All photos courtesy of Chris.